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On the Menu
Lowly Chow Goes Highbrow
Urban Food Secrets...Revealed!
Monster Mush


Photographs by Felipe Buitrago

Southside Secret: Juan prepares a plate at Metro Balderas, south of downtown. The owner, Samuel Cortez, is from a Mexico City neighborhood called Arboledas Cuautepec, and has brought a distinct provincial authenticity to his place.

Urban Food Secrets...Revealed!

If cheap food is going to become tomorrow's fine dining, it's got to start somewhere. Here's a rundown of some of San Jose's best-kept secrets.

By Stett Holbrook

GOOD RESTAURANTS in Silicon Valley aren't just the ones with big wine lists, gracious maitre d's and valet parking. Hidden down side streets and in the lesser traveled parts of town is a subspecies of restaurant that can deliver the same culinary bliss as the fancier restaurants, sometime even more because you have to work a little harder to find them. You won't read about them in Zagat guides or in the pages of glossy magazines. They're word-of-mouth restaurants that I call urban food secrets.

These are the kind of places that a friend who really knows his Mexican food turns you on to, cash-only joints where English is often spoken as a second language, if at all. These establishments have survived the vicissitudes of neighborhood development and stayed in business long after other businesses went elsewhere. They're the kind of places you stumble upon and go in not knowing what to expect, but you're hungry, so what the hell. You leave sated and happy because you've made your own food discovery.

Part of the appeal of these hidden gems is their under-the-radar status. They don't succeed on ambience or see-and-be-seen allure. They stay in business because of their dedicated local following and above all because of their food. After all, no place it going to stay around if the food isn't any good.

What follows then is a list of good, sometimes great food in unlikely places. I've written about some of them before, but most are being revealed here for the first time. The list focuses on San Jose, so of course there are scores of places in Silicon Valley that aren't included here. I'll save those for another time. In the meantime, now that I've shown you mine, I'd like to hear from you. What are your food secrets? Send them to [email protected], and we'll run the best ones in future issues.

Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em: Everyone who eats at B.C.C. Enterprises Barbecue quickly learns that Jon-Jon knows his way around a smoker—and why this place is on our list.

B.C.C. Enterprises Barbecue

It was the location of this roadside barbecue joint that pulled me in. Located on Old Oakland Road on the way to the San Jose Flea Market, B.C.C. (which stands for Bethesda Community Church) occupies an old gas station. The restaurant is no more than a half-dozen smokers, a trailer and scattering of tables under a metal roof. There are a few tables inside the low ceiling room where you place your order, but unless you're fond of fluorescent lighting and watching Divorce Court on TV, you're better off sitting outside. While the tri-tip, ribs, chicken and sausage have plenty of smoke flavor, the meats are really more grilled than barbecued. But that's OK. Eight bucks gets you three pieces of meat and a side of rich and sugary baked beans and rather forgettable potato salad. And if you really like it, you can buy the place. It's for sale. Open 10am-3pm Monday-Thursday, 10am-5pm Friday and 11am-5pm Saturday. 1305 Old Oakland Road (one block east of Highway 101). 408.287.5788.

Meat of the Century: Lou Chiaramonte's Sicilian-born grandfather started Chiaramonte's deli nearly 100 years ago, back when 13th Street was mainly an Italian neighborhood. The meat hook came with the building.


Owner Lou Chiaramonte's Sicilian-born grandfather started this deli nearly 100 years ago. Back when 13th Street was mainly an Italian neighborhood along what was then the highway to Oakland, Chiaramonte's was the place to go for fresh-made Italian sausage. It still is. Chiarmonte's sells the sausage by the mile, shipping it as far as New York for people who just can't go without it. The deli also makes great meatballs. To enjoy a slice of this Italian-American institution, try a sausage sandwich—a fat link of that Sicilian spiced pork with a ladle of thick marinara sauce. Open 10am-6pm Monday-Friday and 10am-5pm Saturday. 609 N. 13th St. 408.295.0943.

El Sol Taqueria

Located next to a Mexican market of the same name on chow-rich 13th Street, this taqueria is somewhere between a taco truck and a more permanent structure. There are a few plastic tables out front under a canopy. Tortillas are made by hand and the al pastor tacos are especially good. At $1.50 a piece, they're just the right size and filled with marinated pork and roasted, sweet onions. Two or three bites and they're gone. If you want more on your taco, there's a self-serve condiment bar with good red and green salsa, onions, limes and cilantro. When you've had your fill, the churro chart next to the taqueria calls your name. They're freshly fried and then dusted with cinnamon and sugar. Open every day 10am-10pm. 705 13th St. Cash only.

Freshly Baked Eatery

Sandwiched between the First Unitarian Church and the St. James office building, this deli is the place to go for a sandwich when you're downtown. The deli bakes its own sourdough and dark rye bread. Try the rye with the Reuben, a fat, triple-decker sandwich served with a great big dill pickle. They also cook their own meats, a touch that separates them from other delis. Eat outside on tables on across the street in St. James Park. As you sit on a park bench munching your sandwich, this place feels like an oasis just a few blocks north of busy Santa Clara Street. And if you're like me and find you can't finish the second half of your sandwich, one of the homeless folks lounging in the park would be happy to help you out. Open 7am- 2:30pm Monday-Friday. 152 N. Third St. 408.298.9370.

Closer to Vine: The last of the season's tomatoes grow behind the Giordano Farm Stand. You see, there's fresh, and then there's fresh.

Giordano Farm stand

It's hard to imagine now, but before it was called "Silicon Valley" the South Bay was known as the Valley of the Heart's Delight, a paradise of fruit orchards and small farms. That all lies under asphalt and office parks now, but a not-so-small slice of San Jose's agricultural roots lives on the Giordano Farm Stand. The farm stand is surrounded by tract housing now but the old farmhouse, shady oak trees and dog sleeping under the pickup truck make the place feel like an island that time forgot. From May through December, this outdoor market sells great tasting fruits and vegetables in season, much of it grown on-site. Particularly good are the farm's vine-ripened tomatoes and sugar-sweet corn. Before the place shuts down for the season, the farm stand sells pumpkins, firewood and Christmas trees. Open noon-7pm. Northwest corner of Snell and Chynoweth avenues. 408.281.CORN.

Grand Century Mall

San Jose has so much good Vietnamese food it's hard to pick just one spot. So instead, I picked a spot with many options under one roof. In many respects, Grand Century Mall is a regular old mall. There are stores selling jewelry, plants, clothes and DVDs. But it's the food that makes the place stand out. The food court here offers a wide variety of cheap Vietnamese food that's the next best thing to the market stalls of Ho Chi Minh City. The row of nearly a dozen restaurants offers everything from noodle soup to tapioca-flour desserts. The communal benches are packed with a mainly Vietnamese crowd savoring the tastes of home, or for some, their parents' home. Dinh Cong Trang specializes in bahn xeo ($5.50), rice flour pancakes tinted yellow by turmeric. A few counters down is Nha Trang, a restaurant that touts its spring rolls ($6) filled with pork patties, rice noodles, herbs and pieces of vegetarian egg rolls. Thuan Phat sells a simple but good roast pork banh mi for $2, a thin French roll sandwich packed with cucumbers, cilantro and jalapeños but not the typical shredded carrots. On the other side of the mall, Tay Ho offers a sit-down restaurant experience with waiters, but the food is just as good and cheap as the food court offerings. Bahn hoi tom thit nuong ($6.95) are square cakes of fine rice noodles served with excellent grilled pork and shrimp served alongside a salad bar's worth of lettuce, bean sprouts and herbs. Back over at the food court, Hien Khanh Dakao, a dessert and coffee shop, is the place for a jolt of sugar and caffeine. Open 11am- 9:30pm. 1001 Story Road (at McLaughlin). 408.298.5148.

Jalisco Restaurant

Goat soup doesn't sound as good as it does in Spanish—birria de chivo. Birria is the specialty of the house at tiny Jalisco Restaurant, a friendly family-owned place on North 13th Street. And special it is. It's an acquired taste for some gringo tongues, but there is no better introduction to the soup than here. The soup, available in small and large bowls, is dark reddish brown and filled with bony chunks or rich, slow-cooked goat meat. It's made with a myriad of spices and has a complex depth of flavor that had me spooning up the last drops. For the full birria experience, you must sprinkle in some chopped cilantro and onion and squeeze a little lemon on top. Sabroso. Open 10am-6pm Wednesday-Friday and 8:30am-7pm Saturday-Sunday. 693 N. 13th St. 408.288.9437.

Mark's Hot Dogs

I fell in love with this place at first sight. I mean, how can you not like a hog dog joint housed in an orange-shaped hut? The place has been open since 1936, but actually occupied two other San Jose locations before settling on this spacious lot in 2003. Foot-long hot dogs go for $2.50. You order inside the orange igloo and take a seat at one of the benches under the metal roof. Men wearing ties sit next to aging bikers in frayed denim jackets. If you want, stay in your car and turn your lights on. The nice people will come out to you and take your order. Either way, the dogs are big, juicy and good. They're made of beef and pork in natural casings from a recipe that founder Mark Yuran developed some 70 years ago. Open 10am-10pm Sunday-Thursday and 10am-11pm Friday-Saturday. 45 S. Capitol Ave. 408.926.0923.

Metro Balderas

Metro Balderas owner Samuel Cortez comes from a Mexico City neighborhood called Arboledas Cuautepec, and his chilango (slang for Mexico City resident) pride shows at his south-of-downtown taqueria. The restaurant is named after a subway stop in the Districto Federal and the place feels more D.F. than S.J. The restaurant serves Mexico City-style street food, the likes of which you won't find at your typical taco and burrito joint. There are pambasos, chile sauce-topped tortas filled with potatoes, chorizo and queso fresco; huaraches, thick sandal-shaped masa cakes topped with meat and vegetables (the lengua and chicharron prensado are great); and alambres, a kind of Mexican stir-fry of bell peppers, mushrooms, onions, bacon and beef or chicken topped with melted cheese. Of course there are tacos, and they're really good. Thursday to Sunday they're cooked on outdoor grills starting late in the afternoon. You'd have to go Mexico City for food like this, and that explains the in-the-know locals who crowd this tiny, four-table place. Open 9am-9:30pm Monday-Friday and 9am-11pm Saturday-Sunday. 688 Almaden Ave. 408.295.4078.

More Bang For Your Buck: Chicken soup with rice noodles at Pho Bang.

Pho Bang

This place isn't exactly hidden since it occupies a prominent corner on Tully and King roads, but the packed parking lot tells you people come from all over for the restaurant's top-notch pho. The place looks like it was once a diner with its red vinyl booths, but now it's adorned with hanging plants and fish tanks. There's also a leafy patio with a few tables out back that makes for some very pleasant dining. Virtually everyone here is hunched over a steaming bowl of pho, slurping with delight. The beef noodle soup has a depth of flavor that belies its light, clear appearance. The noodles are springy and good. Try the house special pho with flank, brisket, tendon and tripe. A small bowl will set you back $4.95 but will keep you satisfied and happy for hours. Open every day 9am-9pm. 1705 Tully Road. 408.251.0896. Cash only.

Ramen Halu

Ramen Halu qualifies as an urban food secret for many reasons. It's tucked into an anonymous Saratoga Avenue strip mall. The hours are a little weird. It's inexpensive. And chef-owner Kumao Arai makes the most over-the-top good bowl of ramen I've ever had. The flagship ramen, Halu ramen ($7.30), is served with an uncommonly rich, almost gravylike broth made from two stocks—one of pork and the other chicken. Like the broth, the toppings are top-shelf as well. In addition to succulent roast pork shoulder, the soup is topped with velvety Chinese black fungus, pickled bamboo shoots, sliced green onion, a square sheet of nori and emerald-green fresh spinach. The thick noodles are chewy but supple and seem tailor-made for the luxurious broth. Open 11:30am-1:30pm and 6-9:30pm Monday, Tuesday, Thursday-Saturday; 11:30am-1pm and 5-8pm Sunday. 375 S. Saratoga Ave. 408.246.3933. Cash only.

San Jose Flea Market

Everybody knows the flea market is the place to go to for car seat upholstery and discount belt buckles, but the 120-acre market is a great place to shop for food, too. In addition to good barbecue restaurants, a kebab shop and a taqueria, the flea market has a quarter-mile-long farmers market called Produce Row. It's supposed to be the largest outdoor produce market in the state. In addition to a great variety of familiar and foreign fruits and vegetables, there are ministores selling everything from dried chile peppers to dried shrimp. While you stock up on bitter melon, Asian pears and nopales, stop in on Frutas Tropicales Ortega. The counter is lined with jars of delicious-looking agua frescas—fruit juices like strawberry, lemon, melon, mango and passionflower as well as horchata and the hard-to-find tejuino, a fermented, mildly alcoholic corn-based drink traditionally made in Jalisco and Colima, Mexico. Open dawn to dusk Wednesday-Sunday. 1590 Berryessa Road. 408.453.1110.

Santo Market and Island Deli

Located on the fringe of Japantown, Santo does double tripe duty as a Japanese market, Pacific Island specialty store and east and west deli. The market sells hard-to-find island fare like poi, Hawaiian sweet bread and kahlua pork as well a Japanese sundries. But it's the deli I find most interesting. Part of the menu is given over to standard American deli fare like turkey and pastrami sandwiches but check out the "kitchen specialties" like umani (Japanese chicken and vegetable stew), black bean pork ribs and the teriyaki bean (string beans wrapped in beef teriyaki). If it's a sandwich you're after, head right for the char siu, Chinese-style roasted pork on a French roll. Open 9am-6pm Monday-Saturday and 9am-2pm Sunday. 245 E. Taylor St. 408.295.5406.

Texas Smokehouse BBQ

No need to look for the "open" sign at this east San Jose barbecue standout. The mesquite smoke billowing from the 500-gallon smoker out front tells you Texas Smokehouse BBQ is open for business. And barbecue is definitely its business. Hot links, ribs, chicken legs and tri-tip are all cooked Texas style, meaning it's the meat and mesquite flavor that make the meat what it is, not seasonings. The tri-tip is the star of the show. It's served with an excellent sweet and vinegary barbecue sauce. Try the No. 7, a more-than-you-can-eat plate of pork and tri-tip with a choice of two sides for $11.95. For traditionalists, the collard greens and baked beans are a must. For nonsmoked fare, opt for the fried catfish and red snapper. And don't miss out on the sweet potato and pecan pies. Although mainly a takeout place, there are two small tables inside. Open for lunch and dinner Wednesday-Saturday. 1091 S. Capitol Expwy. 408.926.2829.

Top Dog

A hot dog is such a simple thing. Meat, bun, maybe a little mustard. But there have been many abuses committed in the name of the dog. Not so at Top Dog. Popular with San Jose State students, Top Dog is tucked into a little shopping center dominated by a 7-Eleven. Choose from about a dozen dogs for $1.50 made by various specialty producers like Saag's, Molinari and Schwarz of San Francisco. There are even kosher and vegetarian dogs. I liked the Italian-accented Calabrese dog. Top Dog's garden patio adds to the place's appeal. The South Bay is lucky to have a branch of this East Bay institution. Open 10:30am-9pm every day. 284B S. 11th St. 408.298.3647.

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From the October 26-November 1, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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